In moment of atypical candidness, I'd like to describe a bit of an experiment I've just undertaken--a less-than-successful solution to get from here to there ("there" being the magic bullet to assuage my dismay with an ugly spot in my garden).  And why, ultimately, it hasn't been that successful.

The reason my candidness is rare is because from a design perspective, my personal garden is more or less a non-garden.  I'm hesitant to show it off, as it's really a collection of plants rather than a garden.  I rent a carriage-house behind another house, and I do love it.  It's quiet, the price is right, my neighbors are great, I can clean the whole house inside from top to bottom in about two hours etc, etc.  The other reason it works is because the problems with this VERY imperfect house are not utimately my problems, so I can turn my head at things I would feel a strong need to resolve were the space my own.  The fact that it stands completely akimbo, has less-than-stellar plumbing, and really schlocky craftsmanship are not for me to pour money and time into rectifying.  

This translates to the outside too.  It's wonderful to have a quiet spot to garden and my neighbors seem thrilled to let me.  Still, I am approaching a threshold of what I can tolerate visually.  Three houses share a steep busted concrete driveway that is a bit of a rabbit's warren:  a parking lot, a view of garbage cans, barely held together by dilapidated railroad ties (this is a nice neighborhood, by the way).  It's just that the space wasn't that well-conceived when constructed: it was an effort to build houses in a fairly urban setting on a steep ravine.  My neighbors have asked me about an approach to resolving their steep backyard, which isn't very usable from their charming house.  When the houses were constructed, there wasn't much thought given to future projects or use of the outside.

When I first came here three years ago, I was working all the time and didn't do that much other than plant some containers that related in no way to this space--I just had to plant something.  That year I worked to eradicate the enormous drifts of ivy choking the space and removed some really sad-looking azaleas.  I had to be careful about what I did, as my new neighbors didn't necessarily want me monkeying with what had been there long before me.  There were odd ligustrum topiary and the saddest looking boxwoods knocking on death's door.  It's deeply shaded and incredibly dry in some spots, gets blasted with 4 pm sun in others, and all around the carriage house was initially sludge that was added for fill to build the little cottage (though down the slope the soil is like gold). 

So how it all evolved is how many plant-lovers' gardens evolve.  I just couldn't help myself.  I had to buy that variegated Fatsia.  And that Yucca linearifolia.  And that Beschornaria septronalis.  And that Rosa 'Climbing Pinkie'--such a collection does not a garden make. 

So I've done more and more to make a bit of a garden--always understanding that it's gardening, not really designing--simply because I love plants and I have to garden.  I love the act of it and my hands in the cool dirt; I want to be experimenting and learning about plants in a way that's different from learning in someone else's space.   For me, it's data collection and continuing ed, professionally, and personally, it's a tonic and an expression of creativity.  I like to work quietly and intuitively, cutting back and transplanting in a way that is rarely feasible in a client's garden.  I've been content with appreciating the texture of the ferns next to the Heuchera and have refrained from looking at the space as a whole.

So my experiment was this: I have a little concrete path from the crazy driveway to my door, and it's lined by a narrow bed that is at the edge of a railroad-tie retaining wall that supports my neighbor's parking pad.  This was the worst of the soil when I moved in, and I'm pleased at how it's character has changed with the addition of organic matter (e.g., worm castings), letting leaf mold do it's thing to add microbial life, and growing tough herbaceous plants that themselves have added life to the soil.

Let's be honest:  this is an inherently ugly bed.  It's a frame for a parking lot of at at least 6 vehicles and a barely effective solution for dealing with a steep slope.  It's not level and is honestly kind of hard to understand.  There were concrete pots on top that I have filled with succulents because I love them and they live there, even all year while I was in California.   Most of the plants I'd just thrown in there when I first pulled out the azaleas: Yucca recurvifolia, Iris tectorum, Carex 'Frostly Curls', Hellebores, Euphorbia, Opuntia 'Morning Star'...a disparate collection.  I finally decided I wanted that bed to look like something that is worthy of an entry--that I am pleased at seeing as I walk in the door, and that I'm not worried someone will see and resolve NEVER to hire me to design anything.   It had started to look just enough like something with the success of the C. 'Frosty Curls' and Iris t. that I got excited and decided to make more of an effort.  The yucca had gotten too big, and I needed to move it anyway.

I have wanted Variegated Boxwood for awhile, so I thought I could plant Aspidistra right up against the wall as a dark-green backdrop for the creamy shrubs.  I would underplant the Buxus 'Aureovariegata' with elegant Buxus 'Grace Hendricks Philips' (a groundcover form), and intersperse some of the the Iris, Hellebores, etc. while leaving the Carex weeping along the edge.  In my mind's eye, I could see the luurious combo, and got excited that it was a cohesive planting that would likely thrive, given that it's shady against the wall, but 18 inches in front of the wall it gets blasted with late afternoon sun.  The air circulation is limited as well.

So I planted my new combo, and I'm a little disappointed.  The truth is, a good planting can't resolve an inherently defunct space.  I've planted Muhlenbeckia capillaris (creeping wire vine) directly in the rotting wood at the top to cascade down and meet the Aspidistra.  It's still kind of ugly.  I can't hide the concrete and crooked roof.  I've reinforced what I know--you've got to get the space right before throwing in some pretty plants.

 Nevertheless, I love my new plants and will look forward to pruning the boxwood and watching the Hellebore flowers bud.  I kinda like my silly crooked roof, too--truth be told.  And I'm so grateful for this little spot that feels like home.  Maybe not the acme of my design ambitions, but a sweet respite nonetheless.  

Buxus 'Aureovariegata' among Helleborus and Buxus 'Grace Hendricks Philips'

Aspidistra elatior in the back--grow baby, grow!

I'm counting heavily on the Aspidistra and Muhlenbeckia to cover up the railroad ties.

Iris tectorum and Carex 'Frosty Curls' in front.


  1. I loved this post. I entirely identify with the uneasy position of a designer in her own garden--doubly so when you don't own it. I lived in this charming one bedroom flat in Capitol Hill, but constantly apologized for the rental yard I refused to deal with (other than minor experiments). It's not just an issue of professional credibility--the unsaid pressure that our gardens should be the perfect expression of our design sensibilities--but an Issue of which one idea or experiment are we willing to commit to. It's the latter that gives me more angst than any other.

    All that to say that this post spoke to me. And your solutions are elegant and expressive combinations that creatively deal with the tough situation you were handed. I really love the palette.

    Thanks for the honesty, as well. I hate sharing my own disappointments, but you may have persuaded me to do it more often. It's cathartic if nothing else.

  2. Thanks, Thomas-
    That's such a good point about it being an issue of which one idea or experiment we're willing to commit to. And, even if there is just one that we want to commit to, does it make sense for the site or the architecture? I think that, maybe more than anything else, keeps me happily renting, as I can postpone that commitment for a little while longer.

    I will keep you posted on further disappointments, of which there are many! Cheers!


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